Saturday, January 30, 2010

Things Past, Things Pats, and Things Concerning the Future

My alarm was set for 5:00 am, but I was up before then and preparing to leave for Amherst. I was pretty nervous about my German language translation exam. The past few days had been rough: my practice tests didn't go well. I felt like I did not know enough vocabulary. I also thought I had a ways to go to master German syntax generally. I had even considered calling my friend Steve, who would be administering the exam, and delaying the test. However, I felt that it was too late to back off, so I went ahead.

I left the house at 6:00 am and headed west. Although I had brought several CDs, I couldn't stand to have anything playing on the ride up. I simply talked to myself, trying to keep up my pep, hoping to run through my strategy enough so that I'd be able to execute well in the mere hour I had to translate 250 words of modern German into reasonably sensible English.

I drove Route 2 into the Athol area and then headed south toward Amherst. The sun had come up by the time I arrived, and I appreciated getting to see the sun come up over some valley as I started to get into the area that had been my home so long ago.

When I got into Amherst, on Main Street and past Amherst college, everything suddenly seemed familiar to me. I went down the road and got onto Sunset Avenue, where the old house was. It looked just the same as when I lived there. I then went into Amherst center and had a bagel at Bruegger's. My plan had been to relax at Bruegger's, have some food and coffee, and study until it was time to leave for the test.

Then Bill Belichik, head coach of the New England Patriots, walked in. I recognized him instantly. I thought this was very exciting. After discreetly watching him order food and pay, I watched him get into his car and drive off. Then I called my wife to tell her.

Studying didn't go so well. I hadn't expected to be so happy to be back in Amherst. I left Bruegger's and drove to campus. I walked around, noting the place where I once met my first serious girlfriend, the place where I had taken so many of my classes, the library, the building where I learned Swedish, the building where I almost got into serious trouble, the building where I heard Louis Farrakhan speak, and others. What I felt while I was on campus again was deep and maybe even mysterious to me. I tried remembering what it felt like when I was 18 to be walking on these grounds. What would I have been thinking about? Sex, I supposed....

I made it to my friend Steve's house exactly on time. We said hello and caught up a little bit. Then I started on the exam. Before the time started, I chose one of the German passages that Steve had selected for me. My choice was a section on Early Middle High German literature. Soon after I had begun, I felt like I was in distress. The typeface and typesetting were so close that I couldn't easily identify difficult words and then insert glosses. Hyphenated line breaks gave me issues, too. The passage had long sentences and parenthetical inserts, which made it very hard for me to locate the main verb and start deeciphering sentences to be put into English. Oh, and there were so many words I did not know.

I did actually consider at one point that things were going so horribly that I should get up and terminate the exam. I felt overwhelmed and overloaded. Worst of all, I wasn't sure what to do about it. I decided to press on and just fail. At least I would have given it a shot. If I failed, I would probably have given up on finishing the dissertation. There was no way I could put Steve, my family, and me through the stress and inconvenience of my having to re-take an exam that I had had seven months to prepare for the first time.

I finished translating the passage. I was sullen and dispirited. I didn't proof it at all. I handed it to Steve, who saw that I was unhappy about the test. He generously offered to have me take another exam with one of the other texts, but I declined. My fate with this one test would be as it should be.

We reviewed a bit of my text, since I was worried about my penmanship. Wonder of wonders: Steve thought the translation was OK! We moved away from the review and talked about other things. Steve didn't know that UMass was my alma mater or the story behind my becoming unable to finish the first dissertation topic. We talked about folks we knew and ideas we shared. He's a great guy, that Steve: he has nice things to say - substantial things - about everyone, and he's sincere. When I left Steve's house, I felt like there was a decent chance I could pass the exam. I would know for sure in 24-48 hours, Steve had said.

I made it home by 2:15 pm. After a bite to eat and some time with the wife and kids, I went up to the computer because I wanted to post that I'd seen Bill Belichik up close and personal. There in my inbox was the note telling me and my dissertation director that I had taken and passed the translation exam. I was stunned at how soon the decision came in, but the explanation was clear: a few minor mistakes in syntax and word-forms but rated at a 96%.

I was too tired then - I'm too tired now - to appreciate this success properly. But it was a great feeling to say I stood in, took the test, kept on when things got rough, and made it through as a winner. This test was one important but early milestone in a long road that I must travel. On I go.

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